Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The realm of freedom came as a new stage of capitalist development

Capitalism, Lindsey argues, made it possible for Americans to climb Abraham Maslow's motivational pyramid, a "hierarchy of needs" that begins with basic physiological requirements (food, sleep, air), passes through safety (security of body, family, property) and belonging (love, family, intimacy), rises to emotional needs based on esteem (self-respect, respect for others, the respect of others), and culminates in self-actualization (personal growth based on morality, creativity, awareness, trust, fairness, love and individualistic expression). In other words, as health improved and lives grew longer, as disposable income increased and daily life came to center on choice, Americans began to be able to devote themselves to the "pursuit of happiness" that was so central to the Founding Fathers' conception of independence.
Material security enabled us to turn our attention inward, Lindsey says, to focus on ambitions, desires, dreams and pleasures. Popular culture rose to the occasion, with new music, new entertainments, new fashions and new distractions. By the middle of the 20th century, there were Mad magazine and Leave it to Beaver, teen angst and drive-in movies, Dr. Spock and the Kinsey Reports. And, as Elvis gyrated and James Dean rebelled, some began to recoil in response to what they saw as a disturbing loss of moral tone. The modern conservative movement thus arose out of the same conditions that created the Age of Aquarius (William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale was published in 1951).
In Lindsey's terms, "mass affluence" triggered a "mirror-image pair of cultural convulsions" in which movements we now associate with the left and the right were born. The left, Lindsey notes, embraced the personal freedoms created by wealth, but rejected the engine of wealth itself, capitalism. The result was its romantic preoccupation with collectivism and its emphasis on tolerance, rights and free expression. By contrast, Lindsey observes, the right embraced capitalism but rejected the manner in which a thriving market inevitably opens up new choices and broadens the range of acceptable behavior. Each movement was, and is, urgently felt and relentlessly advanced, Lindsey notes, but each is ultimately misguided in its failure to comprehend that mass affluence involves both a free market and a free society. As such, they offer "conflicting half-truths" about what America is and ought to be.
Possums, Pizzas and Bow Ties
Instead of taking sides in what is by now a rigid ideological standoff, Lindsey attempts to offer a more rounded and complete story about what America has become. Our polarized politics are a sign of a nation that has yet to understand its own immensely stable, ultimately centrist synthesis of left and right, he contends. The American middle has pragmatically combined parallel appreciations for the free market and the cultural abundance it supplies. At once fiscally conservative and socially liberal, mainstream America represents the real heart of a nation that has found a way to finance a free society organized around almost infinite variety -- one with health food and yoga, therapy and religion, civil unions and sex changes, Wal-Mart and Amazon, MySpace and microwaves, cell phones and laptops, blogs and iPods, home pregnancy kits and soft contact lenses, and societies for every hobby, profession and interest group imaginable, including the Possum Growers and Breeders Association, the Bow Tie Manufacturers Association and the Frozen Pizza Institute.
As the consumer-oriented cast of this list might suggest, the founding premise for Lindsey's exuberant rewriting of American history is that abundance is the prerequisite for freedom. "Liberation from material necessity marks a fundamental change in the human condition," Lindsey explains in apocalyptic language reminiscent of Karl Marx. And in this he is consciously and somewhat ironically reworking Marx's theories, acknowledging how very much the Victorian visionary got right in order to offer a modern libertarian analysis of what he got fundamentally wrong. According to Lindsey, "the realm of freedom came as a new stage of capitalist development"; far from yielding the tranquil utopia of Marx's fantasy, mass affluence unleashed a "clamorous desire" that has not only transformed American culture, but has reshaped our souls.
The vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, Lindsey is a free market advocate whose economic ideals color his understanding of American history. If The Age of Abundance is a bit thesis-driven -- libertarian think tanker writes a book proving that modern American culture is naturally and inevitably libertarian -- it is nonetheless compelling and provocative, a heady mix of detailed anecdote and sweeping analysis that offers us a chance to view our present and our recent past through new eyes.
There is a lingering suspicion in America that prosperity is somehow shameful -- that, like power, it corrupts us absolutely. But, Lindsey notes, that is a sign of just how luxuriously free our wealth has made us. People who can afford to despise the economic system that sustains them are very rich indeed, he observes; so are those who feel free not to tolerate the social choice and cultural expressiveness that comes with mass affluence. But one risk we can all safely take, Lindsey asserts, is to contemplate alternative accounts of who and what we are.

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